By Rebecca Keister
PBN Staff Writer
By Rebecca Keister
PBN Staff Writer
Liz Pasqualini became director of the Jonnycake Center, a South Kingstown nonprofit which provides assistance to individuals and families in need of food, clothing and household items through its emergency food pantry and other services, after she led the organization through recovering from the March 2010 flood.
With the center since 2008, she once again saw the nonprofit through a weather-related disaster last fall with Hurricane Sandy, which damaged one of the food pantry’s freezers. Citizens Bank donated $10,000 the center to replace the freezer but Pasqualini said the bigger success was in how the Jonnycake Center was able to help residents and businesses that suffered much more damage from the hurricane.
PBN: You were interim director of the Jonnycake Center during the March 2010 floods. How does the impact of Hurricane Sandy compare with what you witnessed in 2010 – on the center and on the community?
PASQUALINI: The main difference for us was the WE were not a victim of this disaster like we were during the floods. We had no damage, no food loss, and only a temporary loss of power. We wish the rest of Westerly faired so well. Being as lucky as we were with this go around, we were in a much better position to respond to the needs of our community. With Sandy, the majority of the impact of the impact was felt by the beach communities. The needs that have presented have been very diverse. There is no one size fits all kind of fix, meaning our staff continues to work closely with victims to ensure their needs are being met. The response has been in all different forms – from hotel stays to car rentals to replace furniture, food, and more.
PBN: Have you seen an increase in the volume of meals and services you are providing to the community since you arrived at the Jonnycake Center? If so, to what do you attribute that – greater need, greater visibility in the community, or something else?
PASQUALINI: We are serving more food and providing more assistance than we ever have. Although we continue to serve [an average of about 30] new families every month, a majority of our increase in services is related to the frequency with which families are seeking assistance. In 2011, families accessed our pantry an average of just over three times during year. When we look at 2012, families were averaging nearly seven visits for the year. And we have noticed that families are presenting with multiple needs. Families coming to the Center now are seeking food and financial assistance because they are behind on their rent or need oil. They are also taking advantage of our clothing, toiletry and pet food closets.
PBN: Do you find yourself worrying that you might not be able to meet the needs of the community? If so, how do you handle that?
PASQUALINI: Of course. Because so many depend on the Center to get by, I think that it is only natural for me to worry about keeping up with demand. I will say though, I don’t worry nearly as much as I used to. I’ve been in this job for a couple of years and one thing I have learned is that things always have a way of working themselves out. We are very fortunate to be in a very generous community that is very responsive to our needs. We have never put out a call that has gone unanswered – whether we are low on soup, need a mattress because someone is sleeping on a floor, or a raffle item for our next fundraiser. Westerly always comes through for us.
PBN: Have you learned anything from the Hurricane Sandy experience that is likely to cause changes in how the Jonnycake Center operates?
PASQUALINI: I believe we handled this disaster well. We are responsive to the needs of our community, both individuals seeing assistance as well as community groups doing volunteer work that we were able to help using the funds we received. The only change for us coming out of Hurricane Sandy is that we were forced to take a look at WHO we are here to serve. Typically we are in the working to help individuals and families. However, locally Sandy had its biggest impact on our business community. We had to arrive at the idea that our local businesses, as employers to our clients, were an appropriate recipient of Jonnycake aid.
PBN: Would you rather see state or municipal government take on some of the tasks the Jonnycake Center does? Why or why not?
PASQUALINI: This question comes up a lot. We operate in a town of nearly 23,000 residents that doesn’t have its own social services department. Those responsibilities fall to the Jonnycake Center and other private nonprofits we work closely with. This is true of the other three communities we serve as well. Such a small percentage of our budget is government funded, so these towns are really getting a lot for what they put in. That is a source of frustration because I know all that we could do if we had more adequate funding. However, I will say that being a private, standalone nonprofit we are able to keep the barriers for entry into our program and respond quickly and specifically to the needs our community presents because we are not bound by regulation that a municipality might be. That is something I would not want to change.